A Story of Creation – Post 2 of 2
“Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu
Post 2 of 2: The Tradition,
The brief artist statement on Van Chu’s website, http://vanchuart.com confirmed my initial impression that his photograph reflects the influence of Chinese calligraphy and, even more strongly, of the inkbrush landscape paintings of Guo Xi, Ni Zan, and other Chinese masters of that medium.
Commenting on the calligraphy of the Princess in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the character Yu Shu Lien notes coyly how much the handling of the brush in calligraphy is like the handling of the saber in wu shu (commonly known as kung fu) swordsmanship. Or, she might have said, like the movements, simultaneously meditative and martial, in Tai Chi. There’s a pleasure and a meditative effect in following the fluid movements and the variations in density of ink in Chinese inkbrush painting — and in Van Chu’s photograph. Van Chu achieves his patterns by dropping ink or acrylic paint into water and blowing on the water (and then photographing and compositing the effects), rather than by mixing dry ink with water in a bowl and then applying it to silk with a brush. But Van Chu’s purposes and end results bear a distinct kinship with those of his artistic forebears. And neither the purpose nor the desired results are merely physical or philosophical.
If you’ve ever done Tai Chi in something like the way that it should be done; if you’ve ever done Zen meditation for a substantial while; if you’ve sat in a quiet room and done nothing but listen to shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) music or certain pieces by Chopin, Scriabin, or Takemitsu; or, for that matter, if you’ve ever become quietly lost in the making of a work of art, so that when you stopped at last, you were shocked to see how much time had passed — then you’ll know something of the state of mind (and of more than mind) that the Taoist- and Buddhist-influenced artists of China sought, and sought to induce in readers and viewers of their work. Not a philosophical belief, but a state, a certain quality of being alive.
In Chinese inkbrush painting, parts of the silk or paper surface are left unpainted, and such spaces may stand in place of sky or sea, river or plain. There is something deliberately incomplete or partial about the completed works. And those blank spaces also stand in for a number of vital intangibles: for the continual changing of the world, impossible to capture and freeze in a painting; for the infinity that lies beyond the frame (one of the most famous scroll paintings is called “Mountains and Rivers without End”); for the ongoing nature of creation. They wanted to give, not hide, evidence that the artwork, like the rest of reality, was part of a never-completed process of creation. For those Chinese artists, the creative force behind the artwork’s creation was a part of the same creative force that is constantly making and reshaping the world beyond the painting, part of the never-ending dance of being and non-being, as described in the Tao Te Ching. (Here in the West, Dorothy Sayers of detective fiction fame set forth in The Mind of the Maker her belief that the main way in which God created man”in His image” was that He gave us creative powers of our own.)
For most Western writers, being and non-being are mere philosophical abstractions, but although the two aren’t actually separate (their relatedness and wholeness being expressed by the famous yin-yang symbol), what they point at (as almost all language merely points) are not intellectual categories. Let me suggest an exercise.
There is a reference, don’t ask me to remember where, in Zen literature to “chasing the tiger’s tail.” For ten or fifteen minutes, stop doing anything active, try to quiet whatever space you’re in, and listen attentively to the sounds around you, picking one to follow at a time. What you’ll experience will be something like what Christ described some 2,000 years ago: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it came from and you don’t know where it’s going.” And he added, “So is everyone who is born of the spirit.” I think that classic Chinese painters like Quo Xi, Ma Lin, Ma Yuan, and Xu Daoning, and now the photographer Van Chu, would agree with that description and that assertion, and I believe that their hope would be that the viewer would receive at least an inkling of such things from their art.
The 11th-Century artist Guo Xi wrote: “. . . haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find.” (As it happens, that describes pretty well what appears in his masterwork, “Early Spring,” an ink painting on a hanging silk scroll, dated 1072 A.D.)
Van Chu has remarked that he wants to get away from the documentary function of photography, because it doesn’t include enough of the self. In this connection, I think of the profound observation of Carl Jung, the great depth psychologist, that the center of the self does not lie within the small space of the conscious mind.
Think of the many things that affect us (and sometimes could be said even to effect us) from beyond our conscious thoughts: dreams, unasked-for desires, inexplicable fears, uncannyily-accurate intuitions, creative inspirations, sudden insights, mystic experience. Yes, we’re plagued now, as no doubt our predecessors have always been plagued, by loads of uninspired art, by superficial art generated almost entirely by the will or the intellect, by the following of current techniques and trends, by the desire to sustain a lucrative career. But now, as before, the artist who produces valuable work knows what inspiration is, and knows that it can’t be fabricated or forced. You can’t will it into being, but only put yourself into a state to receive it.
It is terribly difficult to help people understand why and how, to an artist like Guo Xi, most probably to Van Chu, certainly to me, such matters of that state of experience that I’ve tried to describe, of something we might and do call “mystery,” of the in-spiration (“breathing-in”) of creativity, of ongoing Creation, can be crucial and “palpable,” and not merely intellectual or philosophical concerns. But they are, although their very nature and the limitations of language render it impossible to make their reality fully present in words. That’s part of why the poet Yeats wrote in his old age, in a letter to a friend, “We cannot know the truth, but we can embody it.” You’ll have more of it in listening to Shostakovich’s final Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 147 or poring slowly over Brassai’s photographs in Paris at Night than you will in reading my discursive prose. But, fortunately, this is not the kind of thing that we need to do all at once or with complete success. We do what we can, and hope to open a crack, or encourage a hope.
We can see something valuable if we ask ourselves, What is it, after all, that makes the experience of inspiration and creation so addicting? What kind of satisfactions led Robert Frost to say, “The man who has once learned the pleasure of making a metaphor is spoiled for all other work”? What have we known of those satisfactions?
In my next post, I want to offer you a piece of proof, a testimony from experience, to the power of the inspired state that I’ve tried to describe, and of the power of artworks made from that state.